Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Pranksters

Anarchism antifamily? The Target manager obviously doesn't know the Traverses.

Somebody tell these merry pranksters to shopdrop some Pynchon (Vineland and Against the Day) in Aisle 3, pronto. Make sure the books are prominently placed, please. Ideally, they'll be obstructing Oprah's mag. (Glad she's endorsing Obama, but I'm still sick of seeing her bloated ego everywhere.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Forget Integrity, In Politics It's Craftiness That Counts

Stanley Fish proffers a bit of sage advice, courtesy of Machiavelli and Hobbes, to US presidential candidates and the voters who will elect one of them: Craftiness -- the ability to adapt one's actions to best negotiate tumultuous real-world conditions whist giving the public appearance of consistency -- not personal integrity, better qualifies one to assume a leadership role. The so-called character test that the MSM applies to political candidates, who are ostensibly judged according to their personal integrity, won't necessarily yield the strongest leader. In fact, Fish argues, it may disqualify them from holding office:

Integrity — the quality of standing up for the same values in every situation no matter whom you’re speaking to — is probably not a qualification for navigating the treacherous and ever-shifting waters of domestic and international diplomacy. Morals strongly held may preclude the flexibility and compromise so essential to political negotiation. And if character were really everything, candidates would be judged by their relationships with family and friends (Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton might not fare too well if that were the measure) rather than by their ability first to recognize, and then to deal with, the many problems facing the nation.

Fish is correct to emphasize flexibility over fixity when it comes to the diplomatic skills required of an effective leader. He is right, too, to reject the appeals to "character," particularly when it's assessed by the politician's private relationships. Clinton's marital infidelities and Reagan's familial conflicts are, or should be, irrelevant to voters because they don't affect the American public one whit; what ultimately matters is the president's ability to shape public policy making.

(On this count I find both Clinton and Reagan lacking.)

Fish's lesson: In short, craft before integrity, but have sufficient craft to produce integrity’s image.

Okay, craftiness is crucial, yes, but I would add that an ideal political candidate, while being flexible in terms of negotiating diplomatic solutions, should maintain a fidelity to the cause that he or she represents. I'd like to see a candidate who would remain committed to combating material inequality and poverty, but would be crafty enough to weather the predictable neoliberal attacks on those who dare to suggest that the state, as a body constituted by and for the people, has a responsibility to provide for society's least fortunate.

The problem with Fish's Machiavellian model of leadership is that it perpetuates a debilitating ethos of selfish individualism in which politicians seek, above all else, to perpetuate their reign, rather than striving to build a better society. This selfish individualistic ethos, of course, is one of the motors of capitalism, which explains why none of the "serious" candidates (in the estimation of the MSM) dare to propose the economic reforms that would overturn the neoliberal policies that have concentrated wealth in the hands of a privileged few.

One final question: Is the current Administration craftier than their bumbling figurehead, who, of course, has always sold himself as a man of integrity, would lead us to believe? That is, what if their ultimate agenda was not the neoconservative dream of establishing US hegemony in the Middle East but rather to promote the personal interests of a select group of insiders who have benefited from the instability in Iraq and the Middle East, the rising oil prices, the weakened dollar, etc.?

Sunday, December 09, 2007


In Rainbows is Radiohead's best record in years, though it's their only release I've not bought. I feel slightly guilty about my gratis download, as the band's pay-what-you-want, online-distribution experiment deserves support. One would like to see musicians be able to sell recordings "directly" to listeners and eliminate, as much as possible, the record companies that, historically, have deprived so many artists of royalties for their labor.

Regretfully, living hand to mouth precludes any purchases that aren't absolute necessities. (I'm sure Radiohead, as class-conscious Oxford lads, have read their Jude and would understand.) Even if I had "disposable" income, it would go first to books I want to read that aren't absolutely vital for my research. But when I finally land that tenure-track job I've promised to buy tickets to see Radiohead live. I take it on faith that neither securing a job nor securing Radiohead tix is a pipe dream, however horrendous the queue for both might be.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Paul Chan: Mixing Materialism and Activism

I met Paul Chan a few years ago in NYC when I was working for the Electronic Literature Organization and he was a finalist for one of the two awards. Paul impressed me with his dynamism, and I wish I could get back to the States to attend his production of Waiting for Godot.

From a literary perspective, the move from producing morphing e-texts to staging Beckett in a New Orleans neighborhood left for dead makes complete sense. In both instances, there's a savvy literalism at work. A literalism that doesn't function, as some critics have argued, by nihilistically destroying meaning; rather, this literalism insists that although we ordinarily overlook meaning's material supports,it's senseless, and ultimately impossible, to remain always blind to the ecosystems in which meanings are enacted.

As I argue in "Senseless Resistances," the manuscript on which I'm presently working, the material resistances in the composition and the systems with which it comes into contact impede communication, generate affect, and catalyze the cognitive work required to bring the composition to life as a significant entity.

To those who would claim that such a materialist approach to literature and art is formalist, I would agree. To those who would claim that formalist approaches are inherently apolitical, I'd point to Beckett's involvement in the French Resistance or Chan's antiwar activism. Chan makes a distinction between politics (collaborative and goal specific) and art (individually produced, resistant to instrumentalized uses) that is worth retaining, if only to remind us that our lives are multi-faceted and engaging in one activity doesn't preclude another.

On a side note: Glad to see Paul rockin' the Nebraska cap, particularly after my beloved Huskers experienced such an awful football season. (The University of Nebraska Press continues to release quality books in literary studies, e.g., Nicholas Spencer's After Utopia and Marco Abel's Violent Affect, both of whom are
faculty members in UNL's English Department. If only they'd publish them in paperback.)